Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Saluting the Centenary of Milton Caniff

Anyone familiar with my work will know that Milton Caniff—creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon—is one of my earliest cartoonist heroes. February 28, 2007 marks the centenary of his birth.

Why did Caniff make such an impact on me? After all, he was an artist whose favorite period of mine was produced in the 1930s thru the '40s, a good 40 years before I discovered him when I was an adolescent. What in his work resonated in me after so many decades?

First of all, of course, was his art. In collaboration with his studio-mate, Noel Sickles, who worked on Scorchy Smith at the same time Terry began, Caniff launched a whole new "school" of cartooning, which used high contrast black and white to great dramatic effect (see sample below). The innovative new style captured a sense of urgency and immediacy that was revolutionary, not too unlike cinema verite.

But though the art initially grabbed readers, ultimately it was the stories and the writing that kept readers coming back for more, and made his work timeless. Caniff's writing and plotting brought a new level of sophistication to comics. His characters (usually the villains but sometimes also the protagonists) were not simply driven by the usual pulp desires of greed and evil for their own sake, but sometimes by petty lust and jealousy as well. Caniff's plot turns often hinged on a character acting out, not because they were inherently evil, but usually because of recognizable human frailty, often leading to regret and a realization and acknowledgment of error.

Even compared to many comics being published today, Caniff's characters and storylines were adult and sophisticated; sex and sexual politics often smoldered beneath the surface and were a potent part of his storylines. There was a lot of subtext both to his stories and the characters.

As this suggests, Caniff's characters' were complex, human and unpredictable—and, in the case of iconic characters like the Dragon Lady, bigger than life. But they also were instantly recognizable to readers. As one of the first "deans of cartoonists," Caniff was an innovator and visionary, who by all accounts also was modest and a true gentleman who was an effective ambassador for his field.

For a more detailed assessment of his work, click here. Reprints of Caniff's work are widely available, and a biography of Caniff by comics historian R.C. Harvey is due in June.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Happy Birthday to Me!

Perhaps unfairly, the stereotype of cartoonists and comic-book fans is that we're a rather sedentary lot. This is not helped by the fact that cartooning is a rather solitary occupation, with the cartoonist stuck behind a drawing board for hours on end. Though having children certainly has made leading an active life challenging in recent years, I actually played many sports from an early age.

These included baseball, football (both touch and tackle), ice hockey, volleyball, and even a little golf (actually, among classic cartoonists, golf was actually quite a popular pastime!)

My favorite sport for the past 12 or so years has been skiing. My wife taught me back in the 1990s, and I actually quickly became more proficient at it than she!

For my birthday, my wife generously let me go on an overnight ski trip to Big Bear in Southern California with a buddy. (I last went two years ago. Before we had children, my wife and I used to go once or twice a season. Since then, however, we've gone twice in the last five years. We hope that will change once the kids learn!)

It turned out to be a terrific trip, with everything falling perfectly into place for us. Big Bear experienced snow storms and fresh snow last Monday (President's Day) and the following Thursday and Friday morning, but by Saturday when we actually hit the slopes, it was about as clear, sunny and beautiful as one could ask for!

We got a late start Friday, and though traffic was heavy at the outset (particularly as our route briefly put us on the same freeway taking people to Las Vegas), we were pleasantly surprised to find the road up the mountain to be fairly open and not very busy. My main concern was that we would need snow chains which I was carrying in the trunk; in fact, at the base of the mountain, a sign warned drivers that chains were required, confirming what I had read on the ski resort's real-time website just before hitting the road. But I guess the crews cleared the roads in time, because we were able to make it all the way up the mountain without needing the chains. Though we ended up driving up the mountain in the dark, I know Big Bear well enough that we got to the top and to the hotel without much incident or problem. There was quite a bit of snow around Big Bear City, but the roads were fairly free of snow and ice.

Although we got an early start the next morning (we also had to rent our equipment first), the traffic and the slopes were already busy by the time we arrived at about 8 am (which was when the mountain opened). But again, good luck and timing were on our side. Just before we turned up the main road that led up to the base of the resort, the parking spots on the road had filled up and we were redirected to a an overflow parking lot off the main road. This was fortunate because we ended up parking right by the shuttle stop; had we parked on the road, we would have had to hike up the main road carrying all our equipment, which is an uphill walk of about 200 yards--not pleasant when you are wearing ski boots and carrying your equipment. Instead, we got to ride the shuttle and get car-to-ticketbooth service!

As you can see in the pictures, it was a pristine and clear day. Since I had not skied for a couple years, I wondered how rusty I would be, but I got my ski legs back almost immediately! My friend and I were fairly comparable as skiers (he has skied much longer than me), and it was nice to have a companion to both pace me and push me a bit. In fact, we ended up taking three runs down a slope called "The Wall"--so named because when you first look down the run from the top of its perch, it looks like nearly a vertical drop!! (For those of you who are familiar with skiing, it is rated a "double-diamond" run--diamond runs are considered the most difficult and are for advanced skiers only.) However, once I started down, the hill turned out to be less intimidating than it looked, so it was rather exciting and exhilarating to conquer it. I'm fairly certain I've taken the run once before in the past, but because of my improved confidence and skill level, it was not difficult or intimidating.

A first for me was that once we got to the top of the mountain, we just stayed there the entire day, and avoided the crowds at the bottom where all the beginning and intermediate skiers tend to congregate. As a result, the advanced runs remained fairly open, and there were times when we literally skied onto the chairlift to take us back up to the top of the mountain at the end of a run! My friend and I skied from about 9:30 a.m. to 4:20 p.m., with two one-hour breaks (one for lunch). After that, we returned our rented equipment and headed home.

I must say, this was one of my best experiences skiing, both because of the conditions and because it was some of my best skiing technically.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Crazy N the City

Anyone who's read my profile may notice that I mention I've recently developed a taste for Asian/Hong Kong romantic comedies. Though sometimes derivative and light, these movies nevertheless have an innocent, unvarnished and endearing quality to them that is missing from the more star-driven and formulaic fare that now comes out of Hollywood. While American audiences have become more open to films from Asia that feature martial arts and historical fantasy, these films in contrast provide a peek into modern cosmopolitan Asia, and the lifestyles of young, hip and stylish urban professionals that I personally find irresistible.

(A few of my favorite finds include Love Me, Love My Money, And I Hate You So, Blue Gate Crossing, So Close, and Gorgeous. All these films are available through NetFlix.)

Not all of the films I've sampled have been winners, and viewers should recognize that humor, of course, can be very cultural-specific. (One should also be prepared for occasional stereotypically bad English subtitles.) Asian romantic comedies are a bit more screwball—in fact, their rhythms are very similar to classic Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s. But they actually also can be quite heartfelt, romantic and, in the end, rewarding as well. (And, of course, the girls are usually quite lovely to look at!)

A recent delightful find is a 2005 film, Crazy N' the City. Like some of these films I've discovered, Crazy actually is a cross-pollination of several genres: a police story and hunt for a serial killer played against personal drama and gentle romantic comedy.

The film is about a Hong Kong policeman who, for various reasons, has lost his passion for law enforcement, and is simply biding his time until retirement. When his partner retires, he is assigned to train a young, attractive gung ho female cadet from the provinces. As he tries to show her the ropes (and, of course, teach her how to stay under the radar), real life begins to intrude. Several events—including the fact that a serial killer of young women is on the loose—begin to break through the senior officer's hard shell and cynicism. The film also includes a significant subplot about a mentally ill man who lives in the neighborhood patrolled by the officers. The man befriends a young woman who moves into his apartment building and, of course, eventually becomes targeted by the serial killer. (The film deals with the mental illness with some sensitivity; having watched several films like this, it was nice to see such a character not reduced to simple comic relief.)

Crazy N' the Ciy is a bit richer than this—again, unlike a lot of Hollywood fare, an effort is made to make even minor characters interesting and engaging, rather than simple opportunities for cheap gags. (The opening provides a very clever and amusing bit of audience misdirection as well, which nicely sets up the movie, and is echoed by the movie's epilogue.) And, strictly speaking, this is less a comedy than a romance-and-light-action picture. But the movie is engaging, moves along well, and culminates with an exciting and well-edited climax with a satisfying pay-off that some viewers may find touching.

Friday, February 9, 2007

A Mary Tyler Moore for the 21st Century

Having grown up with Saturday Night Live (at the risk of dating myself, virtually from the first season) and being a long-time fan, I've noticed that one of the weaknesses of sketch comedy is that skits tend to be high on concept and short on character. While many SNL characters certainly have broken out and achieved a certain cultural zeitgeist, rarely have they been strong or endearing enough to succeed outside the skit format. For every Wayne's World, there has been a Coneheads, A Night at the Roxbury, and Ladies Man.

Which is why 30 Rock--from writer/creator Tina Fey, former head writer of SNL--has been such a delightful surprise. Although the sitcom showcases Fey's comedy chops both as a writer and performer, she actually also has succeeded in developing a fairly strong cast of engaging and likable multi-dimensional characters that are engaging, surprising and unpredictably quirky.

The anchor of the show, of course, is Alec Baldwin as scene-stealing GE/NBC executive Jack Donaghy, Head of Microwaving and Programming. In recent years, Baldwin has emerged as a dependable and respected character actor--witness his strong turns in films as varied as The Departed, The Cooler, Cat in the Hat, The Good Shepherd, and The Aviator. Though at first glance Donaghy appears to be nothing more than a one-dimensional corporate suit, beneath the gruff exterior, Baldwin and the show's writers have made the character surprisingly vulnerable and likeable as well.

But the depth of the rest of the cast shouldn't be overlooked. All of the characters are well defined and interesting, and Fay herself is endearing as Liz Lemon, the head writer of the show-within-a-show portrayed on 30 Rock. As Lemon, Fay shows herself to be a terrific actor and performer (her reactions and double-takes are priceless), who is willing to be the straight man as much as the comedienne. But she also has given the character its own quirks and personal issues, which adds to the character's charm. In fact, I would go so far as to say that with Liz Lemon, Fey has successfully carried on the mantle that began with the old Mary Tyler Moore Show by creating a character who is a strong, independent professional while still being vulnerable and feminine (or, in this case, geek-femininity) as well.

The bottom line, of course, is that 30 Rock is one of the funniest shows on TV right now. The strength of the characters, hopefully, will give the show some "legs" and longevity.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Celebrity Spottings

Living in West Los Angeles as I do, I've encountered many celebrities both major and minor over the years while I've been out and about. These have ranged from Sean Connery (the day before he won his Academy Award), James Woods (several times!), Pierce Brosnan, Jamie Lee Curtis, Andy Richter, and others. Though I make it a point to rarely bother or approach them, I nevertheless get a kick out of it, and have made a habit of keeping a list of who I've seen. I'm actually planning to post the list soon, so keep tuned. Anyway, here's the latest such encounter…

Nearly every Sunday, my family and I have breakfast at a restaurant next to the Santa Monica airport. This past Sunday as we were seated, I took note of the couple having breakfast in the booth across the aisle from us but didn't give it a second thought. When my wife got up to take the kids out for a quick walk before breakfast came, however, the man started engaging my five-year-old daughter in cute conversation about a book she was carrying. He then spoke with my wife and I a bit, kindly telling us how the kids were a beautiful combination of my wife and me.

The minute he spoke, I instantly recognized him--it was actor Daniel Baldwin, the eldest of the Baldwin brothers!

Given recent personal issues he's gone through as reported in the media, my wife and I agreed afterwards that he looked great. I've always liked Daniel Baldwin, esp. when he was on Homicide, so it was a nice experience meeting him--and, of course, having him graciously complimenting our children certainly didn't hurt!